HERSOM: Houlihan Seeks Sophomore Breakthrough

(Thanks to Fitness Sports’ Steve Bobenhouse for bringing this story from The Sioux City Journal)

August 06, 2012 9:14 pm

(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

SIOUX CITY | Friday morning, she’ll load her car and begin the long drive back to Tempe, Ariz.

Shelby Houlihan can’t wait to rejoin the new friends who helped make her first year at Arizona State University a total delight.

She also can’t wait to see if she can start building on the impressive start that helped her become the first athlete ever to double up as the Pac-12 Conference newcomer of the year in both the autumn cross country season and the lengthy winter/spring track and field campaign.

It was a costly tumble in the West Regional trials, one of two regionals that determined the qualifiers for the NCAA Outdoor Championships, that proved to be a heart-breaking disappointment.

It kept her from a bit of a homecoming since the nationals this year were held at Drake University, where Houlihan, counting relays, won seven Iowa high school titles and eight Drake Relays crowns.

Indeed, it was on the blue Drake Stadium oval where the East High grad finished ahead of West Des Moines Dowling’s Katie Flood no less than three times in Drake Relays duels, claiming two of her three 800 victories and one of 1,500 wins.

And, that’s a good deal more special now that Flood, competing as a sophomore for the University of Washington, did far more than just make it back to the hometown track and field shrine. Indeed, Flood walked out of Drake in June as the newly crowned NCAA 1,500 champion.

Don’t think Houlihan hasn’t been watching this play out with rapt attention. She’s able to keep a very close eye on Flood since they’re both now running in the same talent-rich conference.

Most of all, Shelby knows the sophomore year was a major breakout for her former high school rival. After a freshman year somewhat comparable to Houlihan’s, Flood made her first big move last fall, finishing fifth individually and leading her Washington team to a runner-up finish behind Georgetown in the NCAA cross country championships.

“Looking at her stats (from Flood’s freshman year), I noticed hers were a lot similar to mine,’’ said Houlihan, who has spent the last several weeks at Lake Okoboji, taking just two weeks off before diving back into her demanding training regimen. “That’s kind of giving me hope that I’ll do better this year.’’

As if she’d been a disappointment while being hailed already as one of the premier middle distance runners in Arizona State history.

Following up a cross country season in which she was the eighth fastest freshman in the NCAA national meet, Houlihan shattered ASU’s school record in the mile with a 4:39.56 while also eclipsing school freshman standards in the 800 (2:03.85) and the 1,500 (4:22.95).

The 800 clocking wound up being the season’s eighth best time in NCAA Division I and narrowly missed landing her a spot in the U.S. Olympic Trials.

Indeed, Nebraska’s Ashley Miller, another former Iowa prep star from Tipton, made it to those trials with a 2:03.33 in the very same Sun Angel Classic race on April 7 in Tempe.

“I’ve been watching the Olympics and hoping maybe I can be in Rio (de Janeiro, site of the 2016 Games),’’ said Houlihan. “But I see these girls running 1:58 and wonder if I can run that fast. Then again, I didn’t think I could run the 2:03 (well under the state-record 2:07.35 she ran at the 2009 Nike Nationals, her previous P.R.).

Where the advantages of a year’s maturity leave off, she is seeking the next level through an increased distance regimen.

“Last week, I got up to 45 (miles), which is the most I’ve ever done,’’ said Shelby, whose 12-mile workout on Monday was another new high. “I feel like right now I haven’t really reached my potential at all. I’ve had a lot of success with a minimum amount of training. I feel like I still have a long ways to go.’’

Houlihan came out of high school with plenty of exposure to top competition. Until her senior year, when the others had all graduated, she went through lots of top-notch rivals like Flood.

North Tama twins Brooke and Blaire Dinsdale, who went on to run for Nebraska, were three years ahead of her, as was Miller. She ran behind two winning state meet 800 efforts by Waukee’s Colette Gnade, two years her senior and still trying to salvage something from an injury plagued college career at Virginia.

Of course, she also ran three years alongside Ellen Dougherty, a junior-to-be at Nebraska, and two with Emily McCarthy, who’ll be a senior at UNI.

Indeed, pretty amazing now to think East had three runners finish ahead of Flood in the 2009 Drake Relays 800 with Shelby first, Dougherty third, McCarthy fourth and Flood fifth.

But the past is the past and Houlihan’s focus is squarely on the future. Workouts for the ASU cross country team begin a week from Wednesday and classes — she has switched her major from accounting to computer science — start Aug. 23.

“I love it down there,’’ she said. “You know the weather’s going to be nice almost every day. It’s a lot of fun. My friends are all on the track and cross country team. Three of us have gotten an apartment on campus.’’

That includes Houlihan’s freshman roommate, Carly Paracholski, a former prep star from Winnipeg along with her twin sister, Meagan, who opted to run at Fresno State.

Although injuries limited her first-year contributions at ASU, Carly nosed out Shelby for second in a sensational 800-meter special three years ago at the Howard Wood Dakota Relays. Both were juniors, finishing behind senior Laura Roesler from Fargo, N.D., who finished fourth in the NCAA 40

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